MOVIE REVIEW: Let's call scab actors scabs when they do scab movies... 'Waiting for Superman II' — er, 'Won't Back Down' — is more Wall Street propaganda against public schools and unions... Wall Street privatization narrative that began in Chicago during the 1980s heading into its fourth decade

You know you're in the right place for a movie that bashes public school teachers and teacher unions when the pre-movie stuff on the screen includes disgraced former D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee urging you to join "Students First" right after the show. If you arrive early enough for "Won't Back Down" (don't bother if you can avoid paying for the movie; every charter school in Chicago is offering free transportation and free admissions), Rhee is suddenly soaring above you on the screen. She is urging you to support her teacher bashing "using the information on the card that you were given when you bought your ticket."

Featuring the usual mandatory diversity chorus, "Won't Back Down" has Maggie Gyllenhaal (left) as 'Jaimie', the white working class Mom who organizes for the "Parent Trigger" against the "failing" Pittsburgh elementary school her daughter attends. "Jaimie" does it with the aid of teachers Rosey Perez ("Brenna Harper") and Viola Davis ("Nona Alberts"), in one of the first distortions of the movie. The "Parent Trigger" laws the movie was made to promote don't involve teachers. "Parent Trigger" laws are aimed at firing union teachers to create charter schools, and replacing union workers with scab non-union — often, for a time, anti-union — workers. One of the things Hollywood seems to require in the 2010s is that every attack on working class organizing utilizes a diversity formula like the one above. Most of Hollywood gets a lot of it wrong about the working class in the 21st Century, however. No working Mom with two jobs (the Gillyenhall character) would have perfect suburban teeth in 2012. Nor would a mother working two jobs, as "Jaimie" supposedly is, have the energy to organize "parents" night and day (petitions in the morning; home visits in the evenings) while holding down those two jobs. But the reality of "Jaimie" (and her class in 2012) is just one of the smaller details that gets missed in "Won't Back Down." Another scab movie makes it to the Big Screen, thanks to union actors who would probably get it if they were asked to star in a racist rerun of the Ku Klux Klan movie "Birth of a Nation" — but who see nothing wrong with propaganda flicks against unions as part of their pay.By the seventh day (October 5, 2012) of the Chicago area run of "Won't Back Down" on the big screen, ticket sellers had thought twice about adding insult to injury and giving out Michelle Rhee propaganda to the tiny number of ticket buyers. I didn't get anything from Rhee when I bought my ticket to the October 5 matinee ($5 per seat), and there was nothing from Rhee available when I left the theater about two hours later. By then I had watched all of "Won't Back Down" with the four other lost souls who sat in the cavernous theater #11 at Village Crossing AMC Cinema.

What I saw that morning was an example of what had been happening across the USA. America has finally gotten tired of Hollywood's teacher bashing. Despite massive marketing (and more sententious columns from pundits than any other movie of the past year), "Won't Back Down" is the flop of the season. During its opening weekend (September 28 - 30), it was the worst showing film of the ten films that opened that weekend. Ticket sales didn't pick up in the subsequent week, so it's likely to be out off the screens by the time many people read this appreciation, albeit available for sure on DVD or from Netfliks. Anyone who wants to see it for free, however, can probably get a showing arranged by your local charter school.

Most critics are panning "Won't Back Down" as the latest Hollywood piece of union-busting and teacher-bashing pro-privatization propaganda. It's definitely all those things, and a reminder of the corporate plutocracy that's not only robbing the USA, but also trying to propagandize everyone into their way of seeing and believing. In a more tender age, this would be called "brainwashing," but in the 21st Century it's just another continuation of mainstream culturalization. In case anyone missed it, this movie is brought to us by "20th Century Fox, News Corporation and Walden Media." Nice touch. That's Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein, and Phillip Anschutz, mostly. The actors, actresses, and director are among the many spare parts of the neoliberal empire this year, although I have a hunch that most of them don't see it that way.

HISTORY LESSON: HOLLYWOOD'S TEACHER BASHING SUPERTEACHER MOVIES: The "High Expectations" attack on veteran teachers over the past 30 years.

So when we watch the two hours of "Won't Back Down" we are seeing another iteration of film as propaganda. Nothing new in that.

But that doesn't mean that we don't need to take it seriously, and perhaps, if time and space permit, do some deconstruction, reviewing, and analyzing. That is why I took my AMC card, paid for my seat, bought my popcorn (which at six dollars cost more than the ticket for the show) and watched a bunch of union brothers and sisters (Hollywood stars are members of our sister union the Screen Actors Guild, SAG) make scab propaganda for the bosses. (I'll repeat this several times: every one of them needs to be held accountable, starting now and beginning in Chicago...).

Although it was easy for any investigative reporter to learn that Marva Collins's "West Side Prep" was a hoax, as Substance reported, the Hollywood version continued to be the standard reality as portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Cicily Tyson in the first of the Hollywood movies that preached that all it took to succeed as an inner city teacher was the belief that "All children can learn." Above, one of the posters for the movie that was based on the Marva Collins Hoax. The story was also featured in "60 Minutes," which refused to retract it following Chicago exposes that revealed the truth.It was worth the time and my $11 investment to be able to write about the "A List" Scabs that every public school teacher in the USA should be holding accountable now. Maggie, Viola, Rosey, Vin and the others deserve to be asked — "WTF???!!!" This is teacher bashing and union busting of the most sophisticated kind, and some real talent has been slavishly placed at its service. But this is also October 2012, and a "new paradigm" is possible if we continue our momentum. Maybe at some point Karen Lewis and the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union will actually get a signed apology from our brothers and sisters in Hollywood, and they can come out here and make a real teacher movie in the town that gave the world Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Race to the Top, and four generations of "Chicago Boys" dispatched to remake the world in the image of monopoly capitalism, 21st Century style.

Now that Chicago teachers have shown a new narrative, it's time for other accountabilities that should have begun a long time ago, but better late than never. We need to study the slick ways the old narrative was presented, since "Won't Back Down" is simply the latest in a long line of teacher bashing propaganda from Wall Street and its cultural outposts.

Hollywood and Wall Street are not blushing just because their massive propaganda produces another bust of a movie in "Won't Back Down." Despite some of the best talents currently on the screen, this film isn't getting many paying viewers, and most of the serious reviews say it stinks.

But we need context.

"Won't Back Down..." is just the latest teacher bashing Hollywood effort to create a genre that began in the 1980s with the Chicago "Superteacher" movie "Welcome to Success: The Marva Collins Story" (Cicily Tyson). At the time, Cicily Tyson was "A List" and world famous for her good works. The fact that her talents helped market a fraud was not stopped when Substance investigated and proved that, as we said, the public had been treated to the "Marva Collins Hoax."

By the end of the 1980s, America's Latinos had a different version of the cultural revolution that was being demanded of America's urban teachers in the movie "Stand and Deliver," which was supposedly based on the career of Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante. Like the Marva Collins story out of Chicago, the Escalante story sought to prove that the problem with urban schools was that teacehers were burnt out and didn't believe that "All children can learn." The Wall Street Cultural Revolution had been launched against America's urban school teachers and the teachers' unions. It was as if those who had gone to work in the nation's inner cities somehow believed that their students couldn't learn. For a long time, teachers were too busy to notice the subtle attacks on their professionalism (and, indeed, dignity) as the Hollywood stars lined up to make the newest teacher bashing and union busting movies. "Stand and Deliver" starred Edward James Olmos (as superteacher Jaime Escalante) and Lou Diamond Phillips, a teen heartthrob at the time, as a potential gang banger who discovers another road in life through calculus. The Marva Collins Hoax, presented as the real thing until it collapsed, was quickly followed by more semi-documentaries all with the same basic message. The much slicker Hollywood propaganda flick "Stand and Deliver" (Edward James Olmos) was on all the screens (and sadly in the hearts and minds of thousands of teachers) by the end of the decade.

Both 1980s teacher bashing films — along with dozens of other scab movies with the same general plot since then — are part of a longstanding new tradition of dishonest teacher bashing, focusing on urban public school districts. This genre, which has what I'm calling "capitalist Maoist roots," basically repeats the same sermon: Urban public schools are "failing" because the teachers (and others) have a "failing culture." What is needed is not a reorganization of society to stop the production of generations of poor children who suffer some of the most degrading realities in the world right here in Chicago, but a cultural revolution in the hearts and minds of public school teachers. It's not society, it's all in your head.

Both Marva Collins and Jaime Escalatne, with Hollywood amplification, preached that "high expectations" from teachers, no matter what else was going on around the children, were all it would take to make the kids, as Collins's story told it, be "Welcome to success."

At the time, many of those of us who were teaching in Chicago's vast ghettos and barrios and paying attention to the Hollywood scripting joked about it: "Why didn't I think of that sooner? If I only had high expectations for my kids, Steve Wilbourn wouldn't have died from gunshot wounds when the the P. Stones and Vice Lords had that disagreement over South Cs..." Etc.

Many teachers actually believed it, especially young FNGs who arrived with that slant on reality straight from their professors (not all, just the majority) who, after all, had written books and done "studies" proving the same thing Marva and Jaime were preaching. Those who survived in the classrooms of Chicago's inner city long enough to become veterans (a minority to be sure) had become seasoned enough to realize the lie that was being preached from the heights of American culture — and to lead the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012. But many of those who failed to survive as classroom teachers in the inner city (especially many of those generated out of "Teach for America") took a different route, going from their couple of years of slumming into positions of power, promoted as the new generation of urban education leaders by the ruling class. The most famous of those classroom failures? Michelle Rhee.

The myth had the simplicity of genius: All you have to do to make the school work is establish a "culture of success" — a sort of Great Capitalist Cultural Revolution to save public education. And it didn't require lower class sizes, or desegregation, or a massive struggle to alleviate the horrors of urban poverty as experienced by children from their earliest years. All that was required to make the world better was GOOD TEACHERS. And the ability of schools to get rid of BAD TEACHERS.

Now this Maoized capitalist cultural critique is very convenient because it doesn't require spending any more money on solving the problems of the nation's poor communities and poor children's education. Despite the fact that some of the "heroes" of this genre (like Harlem's Geoffrey Canada, start of "Waiting for Superman") are spending four or five times what local real public schools get (and still experiencing failure on a major scale) have carved out lucrative careers, a lot is left out of the narrative.

And these myths supposedly make it possible for "good people" to ignore the millions of poor children that are created by capitalism in its 21st Century iteration. For some, missionary work at charter schools in the ghetto is a formula that provides endless hours of North Shore prattle later (sort of like the "Missionary Society" in "To Kill a Mockingbird"). The real problem is ideology — the "failing" ideology of millions of unionized teachers, according to these propagandists. The problem is NOT — not a system that has created, in the wealthiest nation in the history of Earth, massive child poverty and desperation in huge swaths of urban America. The solution is for the teachers to do criticism and self-criticism and come out with cleaner minds. Power Points are often used to help this process along.

Uplifting preaching — along with the Power Point iterations of the latest way to get to a "culture of success" — is a lot cheaper than paying for books and teachers. This, of course, only applies in the public schools and to unionized teachers. On Wall Street, million dollar bonuses are required to get and hold "talent," whereas in schools a few cheap trick sermons and a couple of bucks in a well-orchestrated merit pay scam is enough to keep the marks coming back to the table to be taken, over and over. As the first iteration of this nonsense talked about, all you have to do is proclaim "Welcome to Success!" (the Chicago rehearsal for "Won't Back Down") and success will follow.

If you look at the length of the run for this genre (as we will here), since its debut in Chicago with the "West Side Prep" and "Providence St. Mel's" fictions, you've got to admit they were on to something. But more of that for later. A genre can afford a miss or two, too. If one overhyped movie like "Won't Back Down..." flops, bet there will be two more on the way, so this fight is far from over. "Won't Back Down..." shows how these propaganda flicks evolve.

All this is why it is time for union teachers to demand to know why union actresses and actors keep making scab movies about urban public schools, bashing teacher unions and those of us who work in the inner city. Since the 1980s, this lucrative industry has been done by these men and women as glibly as their Hollywood predecessors spun their racist myths with "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind" back during the time when white supremacist propaganda could pose as respectable screen art. Ultimately, there has to be accountability, and now is as good a time as any for teachers to begin it.

It was only a little droll that "Won't Back Down" opened a month after its sneak previews at the Republican and Democratic national conventions and a week after the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 demolished every silly cliché that came out of the mouths of Maggie Gillyanthaal and Viola Davis (and their equally talented supporting cast).

Most of the critics are right. It's really a bad movie. "Won't Back Down' is just another piece of cartoonish "Good Teacher/Bad Teacher" propaganda. It rings just about every bell except, perhaps, the race card. This time, instead of adorable little minority children (who later, as in "Waiting for Superman", get invited to the Obama White House, thanks to Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel), the central child-being-destroyed-by-the-evil-public-school is white, working class, and from Pittsburgh. (A bit of a side note: She is named after one of the Obama girls, although in "Won't Back Down" they pronounce Mahlia differently, it's kind of transparent...).

The working class and working class communities are really great places to shoot film (as long as the producers, financiers and directors don't have to live there for generations). The early scenes from Pittsburgh, for me rub it in. Before I knew much, I would hitchhike into Pittsburgh to compete in a weightlifting contest, from my first college, in Latrobe. For a time, it never dawned on me that the deck was stacked. "Won't Back Down" not only reminded me of Pittsburgh, but medhoed to "Flash Dance" — an earlier movie with a white working class heroine set also in Pittsburgh. But Maggie (aka Jaimie) is no "Alec" (the welder who wanted to dance in "Flash Dance". In post-industrial Pittsburgh, a young working class woman no longer can get a union job as a welder, and have hopes of doing dance instead. Now she has to work two jobs without benefits (at minimum wage or for tips) and hope — for what? To start her own anti-union charter school!?


The following is full of spoilers.

"Won't Back Down" lists its primary cast, and it is indeed impressive if the roles are a little trite:

— Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jamie (the working class Mom —with the perfect suburban teeth and too-perfect blue eyes) who can work 24/7 without even caffein, let alone the white crosses that everyone in Pittsburgh used to have available for double and triple shifts;

— Viola Davis as Nona Alberts (the former "Teacher of the Year" with a dark secret, marriage on the rocks, who has almost given up, until Jaimie's Great White Hope blazes the trail to THE TRUTH — salvation through the opening of a non-union charter school);

— Bill Nunn is cast as one of the bad guys, the public school Principal Holland (the evil principal who defends his "failing school");

— Holly Hunter portrays Evelyn Riske, the once upon a time great teacher who became a union organizer. As she confronts the challenges brought to her by Jaimie and Nona, Evelyn realizes she has been on THE WRONG SIDE when the union does all those BAD THINGS to prevent the Parent Trigger from going off);

— Young comer Oscar Isaac is Michael Perry. He is the energetic young Teach for America stud who provides an almost Platonic love interest for our heroine, goes through a few conflicted moments of union thinking, and then realizes that his path to salvation (and Jaimie) is through the charter school;

— Rosie Perez is Brenna Harper, the union teacher who holds out and at first is angry at Nona, then helps bring the majority of the teachers around to THE TRUTH;

— and Ving Rhames (who only has one poignant scene) is "Principal Thompson", the charter school principal who would love to have more "seats" available but oversees a heartless lottery that links "Won't Back Down" to "Waiting for Superman". Rhames adds an element to the GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER plot in "Won't Back Down" — the film also is playing GOOD PRINCIPAL/BAD PRINCIPAL;

— Marianne Jean-Baptiste is Olivia Lopez, the school board President who finally realizes, like the Holly Hunter character, that she has also been on THE WRONG SIDE and who undergoes her conversion in time for the climactic scene.

Some of the other characters also give interesting performances. It may come as a jolt to movie buffs who would favor the Fourth Season of "The Wire" to provide a better look at urban public schools, in context, to see "Lieutenant Daniels" getting some work in a much lesser approach to reality than where he got his big start. (He plays "Nona's" estranged husband). The cast consists of some of the best Hollywood could hire this decade, and they can't have come cheaply. But "The Best" doing bad is not good. If anything, it's worse. Think the most famous propaganda masterpiece of the 1930s, "Triumph of the Will," or that racist masterpiece of the 1940s, "Gone with the Wind" for historical examples.... That's the cast of "Won't Back Down" for history's sake.

The plot moves quickly forward after the opening scene, when Maggie's dyslexic daughter is humiliated trying to read in front of a class overseen by BAD TEACHER. Maggie (er., "Jaimie") rushes off to school in the morning with her daughter, who has once against been humiliated because she can't read well. Both mother and daughter, it turns out have dyslexia. Nothing in "Won't Back Down..." mentions that charter schools — like most private and parochial schools ‚ refuse to provide complete services for children with disabilities.

Jaimie, despite being in a hurry to get to work at her day job (working in an auto dealership as a receptionist) makes an effort to get her daughter into a second grade class with the GOOD TEACHER. She is told by the principal (BAD PRINCIPAL) that he can't move the kid from the class of BAD TEACHER to the class of GOOD TEACHER because of union rules (or something like that).

At one point, as a king of foreplay to many of the exaggerations to come, the Principal Harper charcter tells the Mom that the union contract is "600 pages..." Not only by then have we learned that the union contract forbids teachers from teaching after three in the afternoon, but it is also obviously a huge lumbering impediment to GOOD TEACHING and the kind of entrepreneurial pedagogy that will save not only Mahlie but all the kids at John Adams Elementary.

This stuff about the union contract is another Hollywood staple that Chicago teachers have once again survived. For a year, Rahm Emanuel repeated the same script with his lies about the nation's "Shortest School Day" and the need for the Longer School Day. Anyone who watches "Won't Back Down" closely will see a lot of Rahm's cheap scripts handing around in the movie.

As careful students of recent history know, one of the prongs of the recent attack on the Chicago Teachers Union contract was that it was "too long." And one of the reasons for the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 was that the Board of Education's negotiators held out for months demanding that most of the contract be eliminated, simply based on the Hollywood lines about the contract begin "too long." That part was finally ended, though only because the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union was ready to do battle for a contract that dealt with the realities of Chicago — and not the Hollywood oversimplifications we now can hear again in "Won't Back Down." According to Rahm Emanuel (who rushed out to a Chicago charter school for a photo op almost as soon as the strike ended) the script will continue to demand that GOOD TEACHER teachers "contracts" be able to fit on one side of a small note card, Donald Trump style: I will work as long as you tell me to and do everything you order me to. You will pay m what you want to. You can fire me any time you want.


"Jaimie" learns from a nice bureaucrat at the schools' office that there is a law that allows parents to "turnaround" a "failing" school if they join with teachers. All it takes is if half the teachers and half the parents sign on to the project. Like a number of the zingers in "Won't Back Down," this one is telling. Parent Trigger laws exclude the teachers, since to objective of the laws is to launch anti-union charter schools that will fire virtually all of the teachers who, after all, have been the reason the school has been "failing."

Jaimie has noticed Nona at a charter school lottery run by the no-nonsense charter school heroic principal Thompson, played forcefully by Ving Rhames. Both "lost" the charter lottery; there are only a handful of seats available and the usual hundreds — THOUSANDS! — on the "waiting list" that constitutes Hollywood proof that charter schools are what every parent (at least in a big city with "failing" public schools) wants. Running up to her (Jaimie runs a lot in this movie), Jaimie and asks Nona if she, the teacher, will help her, the Mom, turn around John Adams Elementary, the "failing" school.

At first Nona holds back, but soon she and Jaimie are a team, working what seems like round the clocks to gather the signatures of both parents and teachers, then write the 400-age proposal to bring before the school board, while also running their families and their jobs — so they can save their school through the "turnaround." As one critic pointed out about the Maggie Gillyenhaal character, how she can work two jobs, raise a kid, circulate petitions in the morning, and go around to parents' homes in the evening while also tending bar in tight jeans every evening — all of that — is one of those miracles only possible in Hollywood's version of working class reality. The scenes of Jaimie at her second job (tending bar in a nice but not overdone place) shows her as energetic at night as she was with her petitions outside the school in the morning. After one bar scene, Jaimie's energy perks up at around midnight as she begins a sweet assignation with the GOOD TEACHER, Teach for America veteran Michael Perry, played by Oscar Isaac. At this point in the film, I was re-scripting, with the next scene showing Jaimie either in the hospital (which she couldn't afford to pay for because neither of her non-union jobs included medical benefits) from exhaustion; dead (same cause, speedballs plus overwork); or in a psycho ward because her pills ran out and with it both the manic sanity she had been running around with (she runs a lot, too, by the way) and her ability to juggle a dozen or more oranges at once.

The "Teach for America" guy, the Isaac character, is at first one of the movie's two conflicted union characters. He knows unions can "do good." He tells a story to Jaimie about why teacher unions are good (the union saved his favorite high school teacher). But he finally goes against the union (after Jaimie apparently kicks him out of her place (and bed?). [Matt Damon aside. Scabs need adult leadership at times... Isaac has been around in movies lately, but arrived too late to the Bourne movies to profit from Matt Damon's advice. In the fourth Bourne movie, Isaac gets killed by a predator drone as "Three" in "The Bourne Legacy." Unfortunately, "Legacy" is Bourne minus Damon, but that's another movie story for another time. Aside to Oscar: talk to Matt and Matt's Mom before you make another Scab Movie for the right wingers...

Through massive energetic (and unpaid) work, Jaimie and Nona organize an army of parents and teachers who have enough signatures to bring the issue before the school board. By the time of the Board meeting, the union has been portrayed as a vicious bunch of thugs who will stop at NOTHING — NOTHING!— to keep their power (to defend BAD TEACHERS). More about those evil teacher union characters later. A lot of reasonable questions aren't answered. By the time of the Board of Education meeting, somehow, the parents and their allies have all gotten themselves outfitted in green tee shirts that someone paid for. This is obviously a play to the Green Dot charter schools in California if there ever was one. At the climactic school board meeting, the teachers union people wear red tee shirts. But the audience is supposed to believe that the parents and teachers who want the charter schools are all selfless volunteers, as opposed to the teacher union people who are seen from time to time in their well appointed offices. In the final melodramatic shift, the school board members vote by a narrow majority in favor of the Parent Trigger project. Just to make its point VERY CLEAR: All of the Black members of the school board vote with Jaimie and Nona. The white Board members are on the other side, with the evil UNION. In case you missed it. In the final scene following the school board vote, most of the adults wearing the green tee shirts are Black, although that was never the case of the majority of the kids in the classes that were shown during the film itself When it comes to propaganda, the team of News Corp (i.e., Fox News the "Fair and Balanced" one) and Walden Media (that Colorado billionaire) are good at what they do. But 2012 is so not 2001, the beginning of "No Child Left Behind," or even 2008, when Barack Obama put Arne Duncan in charge of exporting the Chicago Plan to the rest of America's public schools via the massive privatization program called "Race To The Top." In the movie's final scene, the new school is spiffed up, with every locker decorated, and an assembly shows that Jaimie's daughter, by the first day of the new school, has learned to "read."


The "good" people in "Won't Back Down" are the ones who want to do charter schools to save the children. Simple; simplistic; simple-minded; fashionable.

One of the ways I used to teach literature was to go over, with the students, how the "minor" characters could often sustain a story even as the Protagonist and other "major" characters fell flat. In a cartoonish story like "Won't Back Down," the characterizations, like the plot, are as subtle as the old Cowboy movies some of us watched (on black and white TVs) as children. The "good guys" (they were all guys in those days; their girls were back at the ranch, except for "Miss Kitty" in "Gunsmoke," who was a professional...) wore white hats, and the Bad Guys wore black hats. Usually, the Good Guys shaved more often than the Bad Guys, too. In "Won't Back Down," you can tell the Good Guys (most of whom are females) because they are always running around and talking about doing what's best for THE CHILDREN. In addition to Jaimie and Nona, one of those BFF couples that Buddy Movies come up with, the Good ones include some of the other teachers (but not BAD TEACHER, who ultimately lets Jaimie's daughter pee on herself; a lengthy scene by the way in case you missed how BAD a BAD TEACHER can be...). One by one, after expressing the usual skepticism, the majority of the teachers become GOOD TEACHERS and come around to the whole charter school idea. It will be OUR SCHOOL and done OUR WAY, etc., etc., etc. One of the oddball gimmicks of "Won't Back Down" is the bobbleheads. (If you've gotten this far, you don't need another spoiler alert, but here it is...). One of the strengths Jaimie has (in addition to wearing jeans behind the bar, running a lot, and those perfect working class teeth) is that she is a sports fan of encyclopedic scope. She gets one of the teachers to join the charter thrust by answering an obscure Pittsburgh hockey question, for example. At the point in the story where Jaimie and Nona are confronting the fact that they need a majority of the teachers, Jaimie shows up with her "Bobblehead" collection (Pittsburg sports figures). She announced that they will put one Bobblehead in a box for each teacher who signs on, and when there are 18 in the box they will have reached the magic number.

The bobblehead gimmick isn't exploited to its full potential, but it runs like a green thread through the rest of the plot. One-by-one, with Nona's coaching, the REALLY GOOD TEACHERS at John Adams Elementary join the Trigger Thrust. The most important GOOD GUY character is "Michael." Michael is first seen leading his class in a chant about presidents while playing his ukilele. Jaimie notices him, not because he is cute, but because he is obviously a GOOD TEACHER. She asks him what he's doing at Adams, and he explains that he began with Teach for America and decided to stay. THE BAD GUYS. UNIONS, GET OUT THE BLACK HATS

According to "Won't Back Down," union bureaucrats will stop at nothing to prevent parent power form saving the children from failing schools. The two main union people who present this scenario are the union president and a union official played by Holly Hunter. The Holly Hunter character devotes some time to explaining how important unions once were in her life, but ultimately decides that the union she works for is on the wrong side and quits, to go back to teaching. There is a poignant contemporary slant to the Holly Hunter thing. After the first day of the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012, my son Sam, now in sixth grade, had spent the day picketing first with his teachers at Chicago's O.A. Thorp elementary school and then at Steinmetz High School, where is mother helped organize the picket line as associate union delegate (and where she also teaches English and journalism). Thorp was not a Scab Center (CPS officials called them "Children First" centers, but nobody else did, and it was clear across Chicago that the children didn't think first of hanging out all day with scabs). Steinmetz was. So at Steinmetz we talked about scabs, and when Sam got home he wanted to know more.

The best movie I know that deals with the scab question is "Matewan", but it's a little more complicated than "Harlan County Wars," so I pulled the Holly Hunger movie about the Brookside Mine strike of 1974 off the shelf and Sam watched and learned about scabs, strikes, and struggles.

One of many strange echoes in "Won't Back Down" is that the school has the same name as the delightful Middle School in "Bad Teacher," the Carmen Diaz movie of 2011 that did much better and had a more interesting take on all this stuff. Suggestion: Ban "serious" teacher movies for the next ten years; comedies have a better chance of dealing with the realities. The Wire did it all as drama (and tragedy), so there is no need to try and improve on the best.

Anyway, in "Bad Teacher" the school is "John Adams Middle" (JAMs), and in "Won't Back Down" we are at "John Adams Elementary." If someone can explain why we're fixating on the Adams thing, please let us know.

The Bad Guys in "Won't Back Down" are really wearing black hats — in this case, red tee shirts — by the movie's end. Not all of them are white, or union leaders, either. The principal of "John Adams" is a Black administrator who warns Nona that she won't get away with taking away his job. But that simply makes it clear that he's not in the job "For the Children..." but for himself. When he gets Nona suspended from the school (thereby preventing her from meeting with her fellow rebels), his black hat is firmly in place. But the rebels finally teach him one, as the teachers bar him from the "teacher" room. So there.

The union people are uniformly presented as soulless bureaucrats (interesting at a time when Chicago's union teachers were striking for what CTU President Karen Lewis calls "the soul of public education..."). One of them, after trying to keep her union credibility, finally quits the union (and joins the rebels?).

The final scene of the movie makes clear that John Adams is "better." The halls are brighter, the kids are smiling more, the teachers are enthusiastic, and Jaimie is smiling her bright suburban smile below those sparkling perfectly blue eyes. That's proof if any were needed that the rebellion on behalf of the children has worked.


Anyone who wants to fact check "Won't Back Down" could have a field day dealing with the lies. According to the movie, teachers have "a job for life" thanks to tenure. Bad teachers are protected by their union, no matter what. Good teachers eventually see that the union has become "part of the problem, not part of the solution..." and opt for a workplace where they have no contractual rights, only their talent to carry them through the day, week, month, year, and decades.

The lies begin at the opening of the movie and rip right through to the end.

in virtually the opening scene, we are told, with a straight face, that the "union contract" prevents teachers from working after 3:00 p.m. (This answer comes from Bad Teacher when Jaimie asks for help with her daughter's reading problem).

The principal tells Jaimie that the "600 page..." union contract rules everything and prevents him from moving Jaimie's daughter into Nona's class.

And so it goes. If someone had lined up every teacher bashing and union busting talking point of the far right over the past decade, each has worked its way into "Won't Back Down."

My favorite comes with the Al Shanker quote that happens in the union offices.

The president of PAT (the "Pennsylvania Association of Teachers" so as to avoid legal trouble with the NEA or the AFT), calls his staff in for a kind of pep rally when Evelyn has second thoughts about the campaign. He quotes Al Shanker, supposedly having said that the union had no responsibility for the "children." According to the Shanker quote, "When the children start paying union dues, we will represent them..."

As many people know (and Richard Kalenberg in "Tough Liberal" has noted), I had major differences with Al Shanker (over the AFT's international affairs). But we also shared broad areas of agreement, and as Al Shanker's career evolved over the decades, he wrote and published millions of words on public education and the union. By the time of his death, Al's weekly column "Where We Stand" was indexed by the New York Times (where it appeared as a paid ad in the "News of the Week in Review" every Sunday). During those years, Al Shanker's thinking and public positions evolved greatly, and on charter schools one could say completely. Initially a supporter of charter schools (as sort of "incubators of innovation" before phrases like that had been captured by others), Al Shanker became one of their earliest and most prominent opponents after it became clear to him (before most others) that charters were part of the privatization and union busting attacks on the nation's public schools.

The Shanker "quote" in "Won't Back Down" has been a staple of right wing attacks on the unions for years, but it is, like most of the cliched versions of wisdom in the movie, one-dimensional.

Having written so much the past two days in this essay, it is still necessary to share a little more. For decades, Diane Ravitch and I (and several of my friends who were early critics of corporate school reform) were on opposite sides of this debate. When I read Diane's book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." it was still difficult for me to believe that she had truly reversed all those positions she had taken so aggressively over nearly two decades. But she had.

And some of the most eloquent words about "Waiting for Superman" (and by inclusion, every teacher bashing movie up to this year's "Won't Back Down") were penned by Diane in November 2010, shortly after President Obama hosted the "Waiting for Superman" children at the White House in one of the most disgraceful Hollywood stunts ever done by a sitting president.

In The New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch wrote in November 2010:

Public education is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The public schools must accept everyone who appears at their doors, no matter their race, language, economic status, or disability. Like the huddled masses who arrived from Europe in years gone by, immigrants from across the world today turn to the public schools to learn what they need to know to become part of this society. The schools should be far better than they are now, but privatizing them is no solution.

In the final moments of Waiting for “Superman,” the children and their parents assemble in auditoriums in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley, waiting nervously to see if they will win the lottery.

As the camera pans the room, you see tears rolling down the cheeks of children and adults alike, all their hopes focused on a listing of numbers or names. Many people react to the scene with their own tears, sad for the children who lose.

I had a different reaction. First, I thought to myself that the charter operators were cynically using children as political pawns in their own campaign to promote their cause. (Gail Collins in The New York Times had a similar reaction and wondered why they couldn’t just send the families a letter in the mail instead of subjecting them to public rejection.) Second, I felt an immense sense of gratitude to the much-maligned American public education system, where no one has to win a lottery to gain admission.

The same cynicism prevades "Won't Back Down." Only now we are stronger, and it's time to demand that the talents that have gone into the slavish service of our enemies for too long reconsider their "Stand" and recant their teacher bashing. And Diane's words can help. We may have said more, but few have ever said it better. La Lutta Continua.


October 6, 2012 at 8:30 AM

By: Anthony Smith

See "TEACHERS" or FAST TIMES instead...

Well George, I'd say you ruined the movie for me by explaining the plot but I believe the movie was ruined before it came out.

To build a "real life" movie on false pretenses sort of takes the heart out of the movie for me.

I am going to miss Ving Rhames, though his recent starring role in SyFy channels zombie apocalypse movie made me cringe as well.

I don't know about you but I saw the advertisement for this on tv yesterday and really was moved by all the movie reviewers who said Won't Back Down was the gem of the year. Of course I could not see the names of any of these reviewers as they were written so small that only an ant with BIG glasses could see their names.

Let's see what we can do to possibly save this movie! I for one would like to see it play week after week for years to come!

Speaking of, perhaps if they did a double feature and combined Won't Back Down with the latest zombie spectacle Resident Evil Retribtuion installment (by far the worst of the bunch). They could call it "Won't Back Evil Retribtuion" or they could combine it with Looper and call it "Won't Looper Down", maybe with End of Watch for "End of Won't Back Down" or Dredd, "Dredd Won't Back Down."

Maybe combining Trouble with the Curve for:

"Won't Back Trouble" or even "Trouble with the Won't Back Down." Taken 2 for "Taken Down", Hotel Transylvania for "Back Down Hotel Trans." Or a Finding Nemo combo for:

"Nemo Won't Back Down."

How about with The Master for "The Master Won't Back Down" starring Rahm Emanuel as the Master, with Michael Madigan and Pat Quinn in starring roles alongside the Master. With special cameo appearances by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education and basketball pal Arne Duncan, with Penny Pritzker, Jean Claude, and the Daley brothers?

Now, I'd pay more than the early bird special to see THAT movie! And lets see them take all of the students from the Charter schools to see it as well :)

October 6, 2012 at 9:19 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

BAD TEACHER and THE WIRE are still worth the time

We're now on track for some fun teacher movies (in addition to those that are coming out of the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012, to the sound track of "Chicago Teacher"). Here at Substance we're still partial to the Carmen Diaz 2011 classic (see our review), with its archtypical Car Wash scene, and that includes all of us. But anyone who is still waiting to re-watch "The Wire" (especially the fourth season, the one that depicts the test-crazed inner city Middle School against the backdrop of the murders and horrors of urban poverty) should get there now. The problem with "The Wire" is you have to take in the entire epic, beginning with Season One, since, like the great works of Tolstoy and others, the work is an artistic whole.

"When you walk through the garden..." will always be more of a sound track to reality in urban schools (along with "Chicago Teacher") than "Won't Back Down" or the next dozen whorings for the plutocracy that "Won't Back Down" is.

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